Spanish navigator and explorer Martín Alonso Pinzón (1441-1493) captained the Pinta during Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the New World in 1492.
In 1492 when Christopher Columbus set out aboard the Santa Maria on the voyage that made him known for centuries afterward as the man who discovered the New World, he was accompanied by Martín Alonso Pinzón, a former explorer in his own right, who captained the Pinta. An accomplished navigator and seaman, Pinzón was ruled by ambitions shared by many such men, including Columbus: the thirst for wealth, glory, and the approval of royalty. While for some such ambitions led to glory, such was not the case for Pinzón. Due to what Columbus described as frequent disobedience and Pinzón's abandonment of the small squadron in search of personal glory, he became known as the man who thwarted the Italian's efforts and died in relative disgrace. Often unmentioned in history texts is Pinzón's role as financial backer of Columbus's voyage— he was the co-owner of both the Niña and the Pinta—and the factor this played in his actions during the journey.
Destined for a Seafaring Life
Pinzón was born in 1441 in Palos de Moguer, a seaport town in the Spanish province of Andalusia. He was the eldest son of a wealthy family of seafarers and shipowners, and he became a strong, capable sailor and skillful pilot himself. In the prime of his career, under Cousin, a navigator from Dieppe, Pinzón sailed to the eastern coast of Africa. There he and his crew followed that continent to the southwest, where they discovered the mouth of a large river. He also sailed in the Mediterranean and had traveled the Atlantic to the Canary Islands.
In the mid-1470s Italian explorer Cristóbal Colón formulated a plan to reach India and the Orient by sailing around the circumference of the earth in the opposite direction. However, he needed funding for what would likely be a costly and uncertain voyage. After the Italian, French, and English crown refused to back him, Colón, or Columbus, as he is most widely known, traveled west across the Pyrenees to Spain, and, after much convincing, in April of 1492 gained the patronage of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. With expenses totaling more than Ferdinand and Isabella were willing to bestow, Columbus solicited additional backers, one of which was 51-year-old Pinzón, who fronted part of the money needed to purchase supplies for the voyage as well as a part-interest in both the Niña and the Pinta.
Several years before meeting Columbus, Pinzón had retired from active life as a sailor, and set up shop as a shipbuilder. According to some sources, he became acquainted with Columbus through Franciscan Father Juan Perez, prior of the convent of La Rábida. Other historians argue that, while in Rome years before, Pinzón learned about a country named Vineland, and realized that there were land masses that had yet to be discovered. Curious, he examined charts in the possession of the Vatican that were drawn up by Norman explorers years earlier. Whatever his initial reason or motive, Pinzón became an enthusiastic backer of the voyage and when asked by Queen Isabella's advisors for his opinion regarding the proposed voyage he expressed confidence in Columbus. He also paid the Italian the sum of one-eighth of the anticipated expenses of the trip. In addition, it was through his efforts that a crew of men with skills and temperament suitable for such an arduous voyage was secured.
Set Sail for China and the Indies
On August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail from Palos, Spain; his squadron of three ships contained 120 men. Columbus commanded the flagship, the Santa Maria, while in the smaller Pinta, Pinzón captained his crew of 26 men. Pinzón's younger brother Vicente Yanez Pinzón served as commander of the 24-man crew of the Niña, while yet another brother, Francisco Martin Pinzón, worked under Martín as pilot or first mate. The largest of the three ships, the cumbersome Santa Maria was a full-rigged ship that weighed about 100 tons and measured approximately 100 feet from stem to stern. Forty crewmen served aboard the Santa Maria, which covered a distance of approximately 150 miles in a day.
The Niña and the Pinta were caravels: lighter, faster, and more maneuverable that the squadron flagship. The Pinta was a three-masted, square rigger 70 feet in length, with a mast rising 26 feet in the air and a draft—the depth of water a loaded ship requires in order to float—of less than eight feet. Together with its two companion ships, the Pinta made for the Canary Islands but, three days out of Palos, dropped its rudder and was forced to limp along with a makeshift device until the 15th, when Pinzón arrived at the Canary Islands to do the necessary repairs.
On September 6, the squadron again weighed anchor and set their course due west. By mid-September Pinzón was actively encouraging Columbus to turn to the north, a move he decided was prudent based upon the rough maps they were sailing by. In the ship's log for September 18, 1492, Columbus describes the captain of the Pinta as "very resourceful, but his independence disturbs me somewhat." Pinzón had sailed some distance ahead of Columbus for the greater part of two days—"I trust that this tendency to strike out on his own does not continue, for we can ill afford to become separated this far from home."
Under Columbus's orders, the three ships maintained a course westward, but on October 7 Pinzón convinced the commander to alter their direction to southwest, where he remained convinced they would find land. The mood aboard all three ships was dour; as Columbus noted in his log as early as September 24, "the more God shows the men manifest signs that we are near land, the more their impatience and inconstancy increases." Fearful of losing his life at the hands of a crew loyal to Pinzón and his brothers, Columbus expressed his concern in the ship's log: "I know that Martín Alonso cannot be trusted. … he wants the rewards and honors of this enterprise for himself. … But I am fully aware that I must use him, for his support is too great among the men." On the night of October 11 land was sighted and at first light the squadron had its first view of the "Indies:" it had reached the Bahamas. Columbus and his crew rowed to the nearest of several land masses, probably Watling's Island although it has yet to be agreed upon by historians. Before a group of native Taino (a branch of the Arawak), who had never before seen such curious folk as these Europeans, Columbus claimed the island for the king and queen of Spain and named this island San Salvador. Expeditions to the surrounding islands of the Bahamas during the next few weeks resulted in the discovery of Cuba, which Columbus named Juana in honor of the Spanish princess.
On November 21, 1492, Pinzón abandoned his squadron and sailed off on his own from San Salvador. "I think he believes that an Indian I had placed on the Pinta could lead him to much gold," wrote Columbus in his log that night, "so he departed without waiting and without the excuse of bad weather." Making for an island called Babeque (Great Inagua), Pinzón hoped to find gold or valuable spices, but was disappointed to find no such things upon landing. Meanwhile, Columbus reached la Isla Espanola (Hispaniola; now Haiti) on December 5. Columbus believed this land to be "Cipango" (Japan), based on the map he and Pinzón both carried during the voyage. If this was indeed Cipango, he reasoned, then China lay only slightly further to the west! But where?
Finding no riches on Babeque, Pinzón turned as well toward la Isla Española, landing there at Puerto Blanco, a distance away from his captain. After finding some gold inland, he and his men returned, having received word that tragedy had befallen the squadron. On Christmas Eve 1492, during Pinzón's temporary desertion of Columbus, the Santa Maria had been driven ashore by rough seas and sank on a coral bed two miles off the coast of Isla Espanola. With the Pinta currently at large, Columbus did not have sufficient room aboard ship to house the 39 men now stranded. Using the planking and other objects salvaged from the ship, his men built a rustic fort at La Navidad (now Caracol Bay) and the Niña became the new flagship. Following Pinzón's return with the Pinta, he came aboard the Niña to apologize. "He gave many reasons for his departure but they are all false," wrote an angry Columbus. "Pinzón acted with greed and arrogance … and I do not know why he has been so disloyal and untrustworthy toward me on this voyage." On la Isla Espanola Pinzón is reported to have captured four men and two young girls, perhaps with the intention of enslaving them. On January 16, with the squadron now turned for Spain and home, Pinzón was requested by Columbus to clothe the six captured Haitians and return them to their island home; as the admiral reasoned, "honor and favor must be shown to the people, since there is so much gold on this island and such good lands and so much spice." Pinzón would later excuse his absence near Haiti as a result of bad weather.
Difficult Homecoming Fraught with Contention
Passing through the Antilles during the trip home to Spain, Pinzón once again abandoned Columbus, although the reasons for this remain unclear. As the two ships sailed off the coast of the Azores in mid-February, a storm hit, lasting for several days. Whether Pinzón became lost in the storm or intentionally deserted in an attempt to beat Columbus in bringing news of the discovery to Ferdinand and Isabella is not known. In either case, he returned to Spain by a separate course and arrived at the northwestern port of Bayone in early March. Perhaps believing Columbus to have perished at sea, or attempting to gain an audience in advance of the Italian, Pinzón immediately sent a letter to King Ferdinand describing the discovery of the new world. Not waiting for a reply, he continued on to Palos, which he reached on March 15, 1493. Ironically, he was only a few hours behind Columbus, who had arrived in Spain after just avoiding imprisonment at the hands of the king of Portugal. Because Columbus had already informed the king about the discovery of the Indies, Ferdinand refused Pinzón an audience in favor of one with Columbus. Despite extreme fatigue, the elderly Pinzón planned to set out immediately for Madrid to make a fresh attempt to see the king, but was met by a messenger who forbade him to appear at court.
Columbus was received by Ferdinand and Isabella with great honor on March 15, 1493. Some historians believe that had Pinzón been present to tell his side of the story of the discovery of the New World, Columbus's star may not have shined so brightly. His tendency toward embellishment, as well as his antagonisms toward many men he formerly held as friends, suggest that he may have portrayed his fellow captain unfairly in the pages of his logbooks. Columbus made four more voyages to the New World, reaching Dominica and the coast of South America before retiring in 1504. He died a year later and was buried in a monastery in Seville, although his remains were eventually reintered in Santa Dominga, Hispaniola, before being returning to Spain in 1899.
For Pinzón there was no such future. Exhausted, angry, and disheartened after his return voyage, he is also reported to have also suffered from syphilis. He died at his birthplace, Palos de Moguer days after his return in late March of 1493. His younger brother Vicente Yáñez Pinzón became famous for exploring the coasts of Brazil and Central America from 1500 to 1509 and was appointed governor of Puerto Rico in 1505. The Pinta too went on to make several Atlantic crossings and was commanded by Vicente Pinzón while serving as the flagship for the discovery of the Amazon river. In July of 1500, the ship was caught in a hurricane and went down in the vicinity of the Turks and Caicos Islands.
In the early 1920s British historian William Giles Nash argued that a man named Alonso Sanchez was the true discoverer of the New World and that it was only through the support of Martín Alonso Pinzón that Columbus was able to follow in Sanchez's path and claim the status as discover of the Americas.
Columbus, Christopher, The Log of Christopher Columbus, translated by Robert H. Fuson, International Marine Publishing, 1987.
Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, Columbus, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Frye, John, Los otros: Columbus and the Three Who Made His Enterprise of the Indies Succeed, E. Mellen Press, 1992.
Marchena Colombo, Jos, Martín Alonso Pinzón, Imprenta Editorial de la Gavidia (Seville, Spain), 1942.
Morison, Samuel Eliot, The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, Oxford University Press, 1974.
Nash, William Giles, America, The True History of Its Discovery, G. Richards (London, England), 1924.
Taviani, Paolo Emilio, Columbus: The Great Adventure: His Life, His Times, and His Voyages, translated by Luciano F. Farina and Marc A. Beckwith, Orion, 1991.